“Ska Boom! An American Ska & Reggae Oral History” is a great new book from Marc Wasserman, ska enthusiast and bassist/lyricist of the first NJ ska band, Bigger Thomas. His heartfelt introduction and Stephen Shafer’s excellent opening history of ska in the U.S. sucked me right in, even before I got to the band testimonials. Shafer (“The Duff Guide to 2 Tone”) highlights the important contrast between the social setting in England that sparked the original 2 Tone scene with the harshly segregated U.S.:
“Thanks to the enduring legacy of slavery, the failure of reconstruction, implementation of the white supremacist Jim Crow laws, enduring and pervasive institutional and societal racism, and good old-fashioned discriminatory redlining, there were far too many places in America where white kids didn’t grow up next door to Black kids, didn’t go to the same schools, and often didn’t consume the same music. Contrast this with the many white, working class kids in the UK growing up in the same neighborhoods with the Black Jamaican working class sons and daughters of the Windrush generation. . . “
He also marks the importance of these three seminal albums, aside from the obviously huge influence of the 2 Tone bands from the UK: The Untouchables’ “Wild Child,” Fishbone’s self-titled record and The Toasters’ self-titled.
After that, the book reaches back to 1973 with The Shakers in Oakland, who were most likely the first reggae band in the U.S., and who often had to explain what reggae was to most people. Started by Ron Rhoades after he first heard Johnny Nash and Desmond Dekker and began digging in to Jamaican music, The Shakers follow a pattern here of one person discovering ska and reggae, and then recruiting other musicians. People that heard them would tell them their rhythm was off or even backwards, because they just had no concept of the music at all. Apparently, Joni Mitchell heard them in the studio and even asked, “What is it?” Not to mention the fact that their producer at Elektra didn’t understand them at all and made ridiculous suggestions like rewriting Toots & The Maytals’ “Got To Feel It” before they covered it, because he thought listeners would find the song structure confusing.
The Shakers’ story alone would make a good film, but there are many interesting stories here: The Blue Riddim Band from Kansas City making it all the way to Reggae Sunsplash and then being a hit there with Jamaican listeners; The Boxboys – “the first American ska band” – who in the late ’70s/early ’80s packed Silverlake’s O.N. Klub, a spot where celebrities would sometimes show up in disguise; the “Quadraphenia”-inspired Mod revival in L.A. which intermingled with the ska scene and spawned The Untouchables, who rode around on scooters and were the most stylish kids in town; and Heavy Manners’ funny stories about recording with Peter Tosh and his requests for large amounts of weed.
If you only associate American ska with No Doubt or Reel Big Fish, etc – the Third Wave of ska – this book will school you on their predecessors and give you a great list of bands to check out. Heavy Manners’ singer Kate Fagan Burgun calls the ’90s ska scene “kind of frat boy-ish,” and it’s hard to argue with that, considering the more artsy, inclusive and positive movement in the early days described in “Ska Boom!”
The book is out July 4th from DiWulf Publishing and it’s highly recommended. Pick it up, pick it up! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)